Books History

The Rise and Fall of Carthage: Richard Miles’s “Carthage Must Be Destroyed”

Greece and Rome hold pride of place in the Western imagination. After all, those two civilizations gave birth to Western Civilization according to the standard narrative. But what of Carthage? That city founded by Phoenician settlers and traders in North Africa, modern day Tunisia, lay further West than Athens or Rome. Their ships also sailed into the Atlantic before any Greek or Roman sailor did. What is the West’s debt to Carthage?

Richard Miles, an ancient historian and archeologist, provided a great introduction into Carthage back in 2010 with his book Carthage Must Be Destroyed. We begin in the Levant, the land of Phoenicia, and the city of Tyre. We get exposed to the culture of the Phoenicians and their problems with larger Mesopotamian empires and bullies who threatened their existence. Instead of sailing west for glory, Phoenician settlers and traders meandered westward into Sicily, North Africa, and even the Iberian Peninsula (modern-day Spain) because of political necessity. The great Mesopotamian empires threatened the sovereign existence of the Phoenician city-states.

Those who have a familiarity with Carthage probably do so from popular media: video games like Rome Total War or poor “history” documentaries focusing on Hannibal and his elephants. Maybe a few others have knowledge of Carthage because they appear in the histories of Roman and Greek writers. And for those with knowledge of Carthage through the Roman and Greek authors—the only authors who have preserved the memory and legacy of Carthage for us—one would know that Carthage is portrayed negatively. Why?

The history of Carthage, as Miles retells in this gripping historical narrative, is one of conflict. Although based in what is now Tunisia, Carthage had outposts and trading alliances with cities stretching from Sicily and Sardinia to Gades on the Atlantic coast of the Iberian Peninsula. The many tentacles of Carthage meant that the city would dominate Mediterranean trade and mining operations but invariably be brought into conflict in far away regions. Most prominently was Carthage’s interventions against Greek Sicily, especially Syracuse.

Before the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage, there was an over hundred-year Punic War between Syracuse and their Greek allies and Carthage and their Sicilian allies. Syracuse sought Sicilian hegemony and was rebuffed by Carthage which wanted a divided island that it could more easily sway with alliances and trading goods. Syracuse’s imperial ambitions on the island brought Carthage into conflict with the preeminent Greek city of the west. Carthaginian and Greek armies and heroes clashed with each other. Such names as Agathocles made their infamy fighting Carthage.

But then Rome came. The bloodletting between Carthage and Syracuse and the politicking over control of the island attracted the attention of a former ally of Carthage now ready to assert its dominance in the Mediterranean. With Syracuse weakened, the time was set for Rome and Carthage to do battle. This is the history we know. Roman ingenuity on the seas besting Carthaginian skill. Elephants charging Roman soldiers. Roman soldiers using horns and trumpets to scare elephants. Hannibal. Scipio. The decimation of the Romans at Cannae. The recovery of Rome and the eventual destruction of Hannibal’s forces at Zama. Then, many decades later, the third and final war between Rome and Carthage which saw the city destroyed and salted.

While Miles retells this story, his book is so much more than a recapitulation of Livy or Polybius from a modern perspective. We are treated to the internal politicking of Carthage, their crucifixions of failed generals and politicians (makes ostracism sound much more preferable if you ask me). We meet the rise of the Barcid clan and how a combination of cunning and luck made them the most formidable family of the Carthaginian elites. We are treated to archeological tours through Phoenician North Africa, child sacrifice in Carthage (yes, the Carthaginians did sacrifice children though not necessarily at the extent that anti-Carthaginian writers implied or asserted). We meet the Phoenician Heracles, Melqart, who is actually the figure probably responsible for the Hellenized Heracles/Hercules. We enter the world of Carthage, or at least what can be constructed from what survives and has been discovered.

The great strengths of this book are the cultural, archeological, and general rehabilitation of Carthage as a great multicultural civilization that is strikingly similar to our own. Oligarchic politics under the guise of democracy (something the Romans despised), mercantilist economics and expansionism, the eventual domination of Carthaginian politics by a handful of powerful families. Moreover, though, the trading legacy of Carthage strikes us as the most similar to our own realities: Carthage was a sea-power that relied on trade and that trade brought its people, language, and culture far and wide which also innovatively adapted to the cultures it made contact with providing it a robust multicultural and semi-inclusive polity that was—as we know—eventually destroyed.

Turning to Hannibal, as any book on Carthage must, we also see a remarkably modern man in the sense of being a political and intellectual operative. During the Second Punic War, Hannibal surrounded himself by intellectual men—many of whom were Greek—and they were responsible for Hannibal’s propaganda machine. They cast Hannibal as the “saviour of the old West” against the upstart “tyranny” of Rome. Hannibal, remodeled after Heracles-Melqart, “was not the Greek colonial adventurer, but the product of an equally old Sicilian tradition, the syncretistic figure of Heracles-Melqart. This strong emphasis on Hannibal’s close association with the god was clearly designed to present the Carthaginian leader as the saviour of the old West.” This new Heracles turned his attention to the “new Cacus” to slay: Rome. “Rome, it appeared, was the new Cacus.”

This is nothing new in ancient historiography and hagiography either. The writers and intellectuals of the ancient world—superstitious as it was contrary imbecilic propagandists of the worst kind like that deceased prejudicial obese man Edward Gibbon and his contemporary heir Catherine Nixey (along with other Whiggish writers) who propagate the lie of a secular antiquity snuffed out by Abrahamic religion—were always trying to present their city or hero as the inheritor of an ancient pedigree. Miles goes into great detail over the propagandistic struggles of divinization during Hannibal’s campaigns. The further back into the mystic fog of myth one could stake a claim, the more legitimacy one could have. This is why Hannibal Barcid is remembered while all his predecessors and successors are forgotten. There’s nothing new under the sun after all: would-be savior, embodiment of ancient now recovered ideals, fighting the forces of tyranny bringing liberation to dispossessed masses. (Sounds remarkably like Western political propaganda too, and this was in the third century BCE.)

If the West is a multicultural civilization rooted nominally in democratic institutions otherwise dominated by oligarchic elites with a penchant for mercantilist trade and “globalism” capable of syncretic blending with the many peoples it does business with, then Carthage, not Rome (or even Greece) is a greater model for the inheritance we should seek. That, in part, is the implied thesis of Miles’s work. Carthage deserves a seat at the table when it comes the inheritance and legacy of the West.

Although destroyed, Carthage is still a city and civilization of fascination for us. And Richard Miles’s book is still, now more than ten years on, the best introduction to that lost but not forgotten civilization that challenged Greece and Rome for supremacy of what became the West. Although defeated by Rome, Miles notes that Carthage served as the great foil to Rome and Rome knew this and paradoxically honored Carthage to reflect on its own greatness and courage in defeating the formidable civilization: “the memory of Carthage would never die.” Two millennia later, the memory of Carthage is still alive and well. And Richard Miles’s book is a testament to that fact.

Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization
Richard Miles
New York: Penguin Books, 2010; 521pp.


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


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